For understanding the Partition and the politics of Partition, fiction remains our best bet

No textbook can possibly provide the insights and nuances that fiction can, writes Pakistani student activist Ehtesham Hassan

For understanding the Partition and the politics of Partition, fiction remains our best bet

Ehtesham Hassan

For citizens of Pakistan, India or Bangladesh, Partition of the subcontinent remains a traumatic reminder of our history. All three countries created by Partition view it differently and the respective official narrative is parroted through textbooks.

As a Pakistani I can tell you what we are told. The purpose of creating Pakistan and the Muslim League, textbooks tell us, was to counter Congress's “Anti-Muslim” Propaganda. It is quite possible that equally narrow and limited narratives are taught by textbooks in India and Bangladesh.

History books are of course narratives dictated by rulers. But then Partition of the subcontinent was much more than a mere historical event. Thousands, if not millions, of migrants were killed, raped and left for dead. Millions became homeless. It is more important to feel what happened to “our people” at that time.

Non-fiction books do give us a sense of political developments and compulsions but it is fiction alone that gives us a sense of what people went through. Fortunately, we have enough literature on both sides of the border.

For understanding the Partition and the politics of Partition, fiction remains our best bet

I took to reading fiction based on the Partition. They provided insights which I didn’t have. Fiction also makes you feel as if you were there at the time when all of this was happening. It helps you get under the skin of people who went through the trauma. Surprisingly, they also helped form a better understanding of the issues that people in the three countries face today. Above all, they helped me in persuading friends to view the Partition differently.


The books I read included Khaak Aur Khoon by Nasim Hijazi, Pinjar by Amrita Pritam, Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh, Ghaddar by Krishan Chander and Naulakhi Kothi by Ali Akbar Natiq.

Khaak Aur Khoon tells the story of a Muslim family that migrates from India to Pakistan. The other books also tell stories of different families, villages and individuals who migrated. Descriptions of the villages of Punjab were exquisite and fascinating. In those villages and towns, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs lived peacefully for centuries. They were friends, neighbours and business partners having no envy or hatred for others’ religious identities. Politics and Partition changed all that.

In all these books villages are depicted as idyllic islands unaware of political upheavals and crosscurrents. Till weeks or months before the Partition, people were still living peacefully. They did not yet consider themselves as “two nations” who could not live together.

In Train To Pakistan, Khushwant Singh writes, “Both shot and stabbed and speared and clubbed. Both tortured. Both raped”. This is a very important line to understand what happened when people from both sides of the border migrated to their new homelands. Official narratives in both India and Pakistan blamed the ‘other’ for the massacres and rapes. Muslims blamed non-Muslims and vice-versa. All the books I read, however, refute the one-sided narratives.

For understanding the Partition and the politics of Partition, fiction remains our best bet

When the mass migration began, they chronicle, people from both sides killed and raped and tortured others. It was not however due to any religious rivalry but just the occasion that made the migrants vulnerable to those in power and provided the opportunity to marauders on both sides.

Krishan Chander’s novel Ghaddar describes how an urbane, peace loving and educated Hindu boy from Lahore migrated to Jalandhar. On his way he witnessed the brutality inflicted on his own family and his community. His family members were murdered and raped. When he reached the other side, he became a part of the majority and started killing Muslims who were in a minority there. Even the peaceful can turn blood-thirsty and become part of violent mobs.

Amrita Pritam’s Pinjar sees the event from a gendered lens. It is the story of a Hindu girl abducted by a Muslim landlord. But she converts to Islam and lives a happy life with her Muslim husband. Her Hindu family migrates to India after disowning her.

The worst victims of any conflict are women. It was the same with Partition. Thousands, if not millions, of women chose to commit suicide rather than risk getting raped. In Naseem Hijazi’s novel Khaak aur Khoon, a Muslim family migrating to Pakistan actually set their women on fire before leaving. Many women were separated from their families. Some were gang-raped for weeks. Many of them died due to torture.

No textbook can provide these insights. Reading fictional accounts from each country can actually help us rethink our narratives and our relations with each other. The Partition separated people who had lived in relative peace and harmony, if not prosperity, for centuries.

(The writer is a Pakistani student activist and graphic artist)

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